Writing proposals using OneNote

In most information based businesses there is a need to write proposals when securing opportunities for your organization. Without proposals there is no easy way to get your client and yourself on the same page when it comes to what you are able to do for them for the ultimate success of your project. There are dozens of tools in the world designed to help you write and manage proposals, some small, some massive, but all with grand promises. I'm going to cut through the promises and focus on using a tool that doesn't make any claims in this space and yet can be highly effective...OneNote.

When crafting proposals there are six steps most proposals go through: formulation, research, costing, editing, packaging, and delivery. OneNote has the capability to help with all these steps to varying degrees with some planning and forethought. As we walk through this, you'll hear me referring to notebooks, sections, and pages; three standard features in OneNote that if you're not familiar with you will want to look into some of the other articles I have posted to help lay the groundwork for putting OneNote in action.


When crafting a proposal, and yes I do mean crafting because anyone who has been in business for a while can easily tell the difference between a proposal written for them and one that has been pulled from a template and re-purposed, it is critical to gather and organize your thinking in the early stages before beginning the writing. In my proposal solution, I create a OneNote notebook for each proposal I am crafting.  At the beginning of the notebook I create a section for each of the six areas (well, I did this once and then use that master notebook as a template for future notebooks to be more productive) and begin capturing the requirements for the proposal in the Formulation section.

By using one page in the section and capturing the requirements and core thinking as individual paragraphs I am able to leverage OneNote's outlining functionality to not only organize the thoughts structurally but also sequentially. You see, OneNote's outlining allows you to easily drag and drop paragraphs up and down through the outline structure without having to copy and paste.  I find this makes dynamic re-sequencing of the proposal in the formulation stage extremely simple since I can quickly find the most logical path and relationships between the ideas.

An additional part of the formulation stage is the use of boilerplate content. Now I know I mentioned people can sniff out re-purposed proposals, but the use of boilerplate within a proposal for consistent information and structure can be a huge boon to the efficiency of the process. In my proposal notebooks I have a section called just that, Boilerplate, in which I keep all the paragraphs and sections of reusable content as pages in the section.  When crafting the proposal if there is something I need to reuse, such as a service description, I can make a copy of the page from the Boilerplate section to the Formulation section with just a couple of clicks. By the time I finish the formulation stage I not only have my new content, but my evergreen information, and a logical order all in one place.


Part of the formulation process includes researching supporting information for my proposals. I've found this to be invaluable when it comes to backing up recommendations made in the proposals with industry standards, best practices, and cognitive explanations of processes. Rather than copying and pasting all this information into the Formulation pages, I leverage OneNote's internal linking capability to create links to supporting information at the point of relevance in the proposal. In this way if I need to look up the reference when writing the draft copy the information is only a click away.


Cost planning and projection is one of the linchpins of any proposal because honestly if money weren't going to change hands the majority of this effort wouldn't be necessary.  As part of my process I have embedded into the Costing section of the notebook a page with my Excel planning workbook for generating my proposal cost estimates.  The benefit of doing this rather than leaving it out on a share is that the workbook is immediately available and saved in the notebook for reference after the proposal is completed.  If there is any question about the figures and pricing, this can be quickly referenced with a couple of clicks.


Formal proposal writing can be a tedious task at times, with some organizations requiring use of corporately approved proposal templates and others being very loose and free with their structure. I keep several default templates in my Editing section ranging from basic, turnkey service offerings to completely custom and in-depth proposals.

I keep the working copy of the proposal on a page in the Editing section for easy access but also to leverage some of OneNote's other features. On that same page I place a checklist of tasks needing to be accomplished in the proposal.  Since the proposal is a file that isn't always open, leveraging the task list on the same page makes quick work of knowing where any proposal stands. I also use the surrounding OneNote page as a scratch pad for the writing process, copying and pasting in screen clippings, working through additional ideas, and making notations on the proposal and the process as a whole.


Proposals usually don't stand on their own.  I prefer to have the opportunity to not only deliver a written proposal but also a presentation around the proposal content to make sure the concepts contained within are explained clearly and everyone can operate from common ground.  I also found a well crafted presentation can provide compelling anecdotal evidence of capabilities and skills to a potential client. The Packaging section includes the links to presentations, cross references to facts from the Research section relevant to the presentation, and notes for use during the delivery.  Once the proposal is complete, I also place a copy of the finished document in this section as a backup.  A second copy is placed here as a PDF for easy access and as an archival record of the proposal as submitted.


OneNote switches gears when it comes to delivery from a tool used to craft the proposal to one tracking the final stages of the proposal process. In the Delivery section I place copies of email exchanges with the client, notes on discussions and clarifications, and revision updates as needed. Additionally here is a checklist of the remaining steps to reaching what is hopefully a successful proposal.

Putting OneNote to use

OneNote is not the perfect tool for this process (there isn't one contrary to what the sales people out there will tell you of their representative products) but when it comes to out of the box flexibility I've found OneNote to offer a set of adaptable functionality well suited to being a strong proposal solution.


If you or your organization is interested in learning more about how you can put OneNote to work in enhancing your proposal process, drop me a line at art@theideapump.com and lets see what we can do in making your proposal process more productive.


Episode 2 - OneNote to Rule Them All

In the latest episode of Being Productive, I do a brief overview of Microsoft's note management tool, OneNote.  If you're not familiar with OneNote or haven't heard of it before this is the episode for you.


Episode 1 - Achievement Unlocked

This episode of Being Productive is about gamification of task management and how a little positive reinforcement can go a long way.  The tool covered this time...Todoist.


Episode 0 - The Saga Begins

It's been a long time coming but it's here...The Idea Pump podcast is underway.  Sort of. You see, this is a test run and an introduction to what is coming in the future.  Take a listen, tell me what you think (be gentle) and listen for new episodes in the near future!


Holiday Shopping in the Age of Outrage

Holiday Shopping Behavior
Are you being naughty or nice?
At some point in our recent history it became acceptable to take whatever possible perceived slight and propel it to a public tirade against all things we don't agree with.  Whether it's red coffee cups or Black Thursday shopping the holidays are a perfect target for this false fury on the internet.  Any slight, real or perceived, is now the catalyst for a tweet storm or Yelp review with all the civility of an Archie Bunker diatribe. Why do we allow ourselves to fall into this mode of thinking and what can we do about it?

Salespeople are not out to ruin your holiday.

In the vast majority of cases, salespeople are trying to do their best to help you while making it through the crush of harried, rude customers who live by the mantra, "The Customer is Always Right." (Personally I think whomever came up with that slogan never actually worked with customers, but that's just me.) Try imagining dealing with a hundred demanding, complaining, immature kindergarteners in an 8-hour day and you start to get the idea what it can be like on the sales floor. Yes, I know there are sales people out there who want nothing to do with their jobs or the customers they are there to assist.  Those are the rare ones and should not be used as an excuse to mistreat or abuse anyone working with the public.

Would your grandmother approve of your behavior?

If you stand back and watch the way some people act during holiday shopping the only thing you can imagine is their grandparents would have been appalled. Failures in common courtesy, decorum, and behavior become passable because they might miss out on the last hoverboard on clearance. How difficult is it to take advantage of the holidays to act the way we should be acting all year long, and recognizing people for showing the common decency and behavior which should be the norm?

You will still be loved even without that "thing".

For some reason we have gotten into the mindset of, if we fail to deliver on a holiday wish, we will no longer be loved by the recipient. Honestly if that is truly the case you were never loved in the first place. Do your best to give from your heart but don't attach your happiness to the happiness of another.

"Your" holiday is not more important than "my" holiday.

There are multiple holidays and traditions observed during this time of year, all equally important to the people who observe them.  In none of those holidays is the mandate to diminish, criticize, attack, or downplay any other. (If you think "your" holiday does subscribe to that thinking, you need to do some reading and get educated.) Show respect for the observances of everyone.  You don't have to prove yours is the best by diminishing another. Also, any time "your" holiday is not given top billing and the genuflection you feel it deserves, it is not an attack on the holiday or the religion.  That's a self-important, arrogant view that has no place this time (or any time) of year.

Remember the "why".

Remember why you celebrate your holidays.  Think about how you would explain their importance to a child.  Follow those words carefully even in crowds of bustling shoppers or at 4 a.m. in line on Black Friday. Make the greatest gifts you give this year be to the people you don't know and may not ever see again. Carry the gifts you receive forward and know that the warmth and caring of the holidays doesn't come with a receipt, a commercial, or a sales flyer.  It's time to let your heart grow three sizes.


Some readers will recognize this post from last year but based on the current climate and state of our interactions with others I thought it would be worth a reminder. If we allow interactions with others to negatively impact our emotional well being our productivity suffers along with ourselves. Avoid adding more stress to an already stressful time of year by staying on task, being patient, and being productive.


Here are some related articles about productive shopping you may find of interest:

Creating a low effort shopping list with Trello

How Android Wear and Google Keep Saved My Day

Using a Journal AND a Smartphone to be productive

There's a struggle point for many analog users (pen and paper people to the non-stationery geeks) when it comes to finding a balance between using their paper based system and their smartphones.

What should go where?

Deciding what information is best in what platform is a matter of personal preference. In this case I defer to physics. If there is information that I might need, but can't guarantee will immediately or frequently need, I place it in my digital system (OneNote). If I can guarantee I will need it quickly and in the immediate future, I put it in my analog system (Traveler's Notebook). For example, when traveling my hotel information goes in my phone but the confirmation number also goes into my TN since I know I can turn pages faster than I cas search on my smartphone.

Which do I trust more?

In this case trust isn't a matter of reliability, it's a matter of accessibility. Which system do I trust to accurately capture and provide information back to me? There's no clean cut-and-dry answer here because if I can't trust the tools, they're worse than useless. Paper and pen are pretty easy to trust, but digital systems need greater scrutiny.

Should I use only one?

Now this is a tough one. Should I bite the bullet and put all my information in just one system? For me, this isn't an option on a number of levels but one of the most basic is that I enjoy using both systems. If I can consistently access my information why should I deny myself the benefits and joys of both?

How do I avoid double work?

This is the most common concern. How do I prevent duplicating efforts and losing the benefits of each system through unnecessary effort? My approach is to think about each capture or effort and make sure I know how the information will be used, where and when it will be accessed, and what will be needed at the time. By answering those questions, I can make sure (to a reasonable degree) the right information in going in the right places.

There is no clean rule to using digital vs. analog. There are no directions, manual, or book that will give you the perfect solution. You need accept that taking time to tune and refine your system is critical in it's long term success. If your system isn't growing and improving with time, then neither are you.


Here are some other articles about journals and smartphones you may find of interest:

Being productive wherever you are

What to do when your paper journal disappears

A day in the life of my paper journal


Three ways to reduce stress and get back to work after a holiday

It's that time of year where holidays come into our schedules and time off looms as the double edged sword of relaxation and stress. Do you have a process for making your time off more relaxed and still being productive when you get back to work? Here's three easy steps to take before you leave for a holiday.

1. Fill your first day back.

Make sure you plan out your first day back before you leave for the holiday. The worst thing for you coming off vacation euphoria is spending the morning trying to figure out what you need to do. Filling the schedule of your first day back with productive activities means you'll be able to pick up with being productive without losing time processing new items. Once you've made some progress then you can begin processing again.

2. Avoid meetings on your first day back.

Meetings suck the productive lifeblood out of us. Try your best not schedule meetings for your first day back and especially not the first morning. Keep the time to regain your momentum and return to your flow. Knowing you don't have to spend your first day sitting in meetings will reduce your stress both during and after the holiday.

3. Check when an email was sent before prioritizing.

If you have to check your email or just can't help yourself, check when the incoming email was sent before prioritizing when you will handle it. In many cases the emails are sent by people clearing their inboxes before they leave for the holiday. Just because a couple of days pass because of a holiday doesn't mean the email should receive any more urgency than one sent at the end of the day the day before.

Holidays are our chances to clear our heads, refocus, and unwind from work so we can be more productive. Short circuiting this benefits no one, especially yourself.

So productive people...enjoy your holidays!

Does a change in your productivity solution last?

At the client I am working currently I have been parked at a sitting desk for the past four months. Prior to this I was working from home and could stand and work when I liked (not easily, but I could make it happen.) As of last night I received the new standing desk attachment for my desk to allow me to do just that...stand and work.

There are dozens of stories about the benefits of standing and working, from improved circulation to enhanced mental clarity.  Personally I'm looking to see how well my concentration holds up, my physicality supports standing all day (or most of it), and does this help my mental focus.  Do I have a hypothesis?  No, aside from the fact it should be much more difficult to be drowsy after lunch when I'm standing up...but that is yet to be proven.

Changes we make to our physical work environment can give us a temporary spark of productivity and surge of energy in being productive. The challenge is does it continue over time or does it drop off significantly and leave us back where we started. The same analysis can be applied to productivity tools and processes. Does the new tool keep us moving forward or does it drop off quickly as our short attention span falls by the way side?

When evaluating our personal productivity solutions, and yes the physical is just as important as the mental and procedural, we need to consider what will happen should the experiment fail. When I think about it more, the better way to look at the results is no experiment is a failure. Following the Edison model, you've just found a way that won't work for you. You can move on to something new or move back to something tried and true (rhyme unintentional.)

Make sure when you're tinkering with your personal productivity solutions you have a fall back plan (with a standing desk that could be literal) in case things don't work out. If you're not sure how to approach adjusting your solution, ask. You can stop by the Being Productive group on Facebook if you would like some ideas and feedback on ways to improve your own personal productivity solution.

Now, productive people...back to work. :)


Search vs structure for organizing your notes

Most note keeping solutions offer multiple methods of organizing your notes within their tools. You'll find search, tags, labels, folders, outlines, and a variety of other less common structures. Determining what features will work the best for you in locating your notes after you've captured them can be a struggle at a minimum and derail your entire system at the worst. How do you know which features work for you and which is the best to implement in your personal productivity solution?

First thing to clear out of your head is you don't need to choose one method or the other.  Both have strengths and weaknesses so it's more a matter of determining what feature works when. In comparing your solution to how our brains work our logical starting place is search.

When we remember something, we don't think to ourselves "well that piece of information is in this place in my head, in this folder, with this label." No, we just think about the topic and our brain does the best it can at finding all the memories we have stored around that topic. Unfortunately the process is far from efficient and reliable, so when we think about digital searching with personal productivity solutions we need to concentrate on how the computer will search the contents of our notes (memories) to find all the items that match our search topic.

If we are going to rely on search to locate information in our solutions we need to make sure our notes contain the content matching the terms we will be searching with. For example, if you are storing a health insurance summary, you need to think about what you would plug into the search box to locate that document. The content and titling needs to match those terms so in this case if your instinct is to look for "health insurance" remember you will find the summary we mentioned earlier but also every other document with the same terms possibly making it harder to be specific quickly.

The flip side of the search coin is folders, tags, and labels.  These are helpful if you're a browser rather than a searcher.  If your instinct when looking for materials is to start at a top level category, then drill down further and further until you reach your content. This type of structuring can be powerful if you are comfortable designing the organizational structure and then adhering to that structure for the retention of all your notes.

Setting up a defined folder / tag structure can be a challenge, with experts in the fields of taxonomy and tagsonomy spending months defining systems to organize commercial document management systems. I doubt you have months to bring your solution to a usable state (I know I don't) so my suggestion is to start small and build up.  Create structures that match how you think and live every day, focusing on where and when you need access to your notes. Keep in mind that in most cases when you need a note or piece of information you typically don't have a great deal of time to go looking for it through large, complex organizational structures (hence the phrase, "Google it.")

So which is better? There is no clear winner of one over the other and I'll readily admit I use both in my personal productivity solution. Creating and maintaining an organizational structure in your tools of choice such as sections in OneNote, notebooks in Evernote, or folders in Google Drive can make the location of content simpler with the downside of increasing the overhead of maintaining the solution. Combine structure with search for locating content quickly and making your note management a trusted part of your solution.


Five ways to have a more productive weekend

Weekends are supposed to be times for rest, relaxation, and recharging to prepare you for the return to work on Monday. More often than not weekends become collections of chores, errands, and tasks you didn't have time for during the week. Add in activities, events, and other commitments and the rest of the weekend quickly disappears.  Here's some tips on getting more out of your weekend without burning yourself out.
1. Schedule time in your weekend for "down time". Don't count on finding that time in-between your planned activities. Allot time on your calendar specifically for yourself and consider relaxing as important as those other chores on your list.
2. Set realistic expectations. Don't try to accomplish every possible thing you could cram into your weekend. Be reasonable and set your goals for things you want and need to accomplish with the understanding that this is time you can run at a slower pace and completed tasks may be fewer but just as important.
3. Set a reward task. We need to remind ourselves we've done good work and the weekend is the time to do that. Add a task to your weekend that is a reward to yourself for being productive and focused during the week.  Maybe it's a special coffee Sunday morning or a walk through the park Saturday afternoon, in any case it doesn't have to b big and expensive, but it does have to make you feel good and encourage you to keep up your good work.
4. Take time to plan the next week. If you take time to make sure you're planned and ready for the next week, then stress levels are lower and you get to enjoy your time off. Set a specific time in your weekend to do your planning and any time your mind wanders back to the regular week, remind yourself that you have time to deal with that already set aside and return your mind to what you're doing.
5. Keep a notebook with you. I know this sounds a little counter-intuitive to rest and relaxation, but it actually is a huge benefit when it comes to being in the moment. Rather than having thoughts about work and the coming week rattling around in our heads, trying to remember them while we're trying to relax, just jot the thoughts down and move on. When it comes to planning time you can walk back through the thoughts you've captured with confidence that nothing will slip through the cracks.
Taking time to recharge your batteries, physically, mentally, and emotionally when you have down time is critical to being productive during the rest of your activities. Now...enjoy your weekend!